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Gifts from the heart; Whether it's a well-thought plan or a last-minute inspiration, the best Mother's Day presents are the ones that come with a personal touch

Nicole Barnas has carried the little red iPod, loaded with pictures from her son's first year, in her purse ever since she unwrapped it at breakfast on her first Mother's Day.

Now she has a fancier iPhone, but it is the outdated iPod that makes her tear up and, on a bad day, smile.

"Some people have pictures in their wallets," she said. "I pull out this wonderful, 4-year-old iPod."

The wee screen shows her husband's tiny script captions: "IT'S A BOY!" "I can't wait to see my mommy. She's 'the best.'" He even scanned in her sonograms, along with pictures of her looking really pregnant, holding Christian in the hospital room and their boy's first, fascinated encounter with sand on his toes at a Chautauqua Lake beach.

"It's not a scrapbook, but it's really cool," said Barnas, 36, the staff travel coordinator at New Era Cap.

Mother's Day retail hype can tempt a person to solve the holiday with money, and it doesn't take much for a card or flowers, but it is the personal -- and free! -- twist that has real impact.

One amused mother still thinks fondly of the single slice of plain dry toast -- No butter? Really? -- that her son (young, but not too young to appreciate a little jam) delivered one year as breakfast in bed. The heart brooch that same boy made out of foam, buttons, fake roses, a red ribbon, a bee and lots of glue remains in her jewelry-I-wear collection.

That's like the noodle necklace Julie Kusmierz McGillicuddy envies. A friend's son made it when he was in kindergarten.

"Do you know, eight years later, she pulls out that necklace and wears it?" said McGillicuddy, a sociologist and associate professor who teaches a marriage and family class at Hilbert College.

"We live in such a busy, fast-paced world," she said. "But if you know that someone has actually set aside some time just to think about you and taken some time to make something especially for you, that's like the ultimate gift."

That was exactly the kind of present she got last year from her 15-year-old daughter, who made a Power Point presentation of life with Mom. Cailey picked favorite pictures from family photo albums: Playing in the snow with her mother holding her. A trip to Disney World. Working in the garden. "The Best Day," the song Taylor Swift wrote about her mother, was the soundtrack.

Now when McGillicuddy is at work, she sometimes spots and plays the Mother's Day file. "It kind of rejuvenates me and makes me feel like I can go back to my work again," she said.

McGillicuddy also thinks the delighted look on a mother's face is a good lesson for kids about what makes a present valuable:

A gift that takes time and thought can be better than anything found on a store shelf.

A tradition Anne McCooey has treasured for 25 years is tea, berries and pastry in bed with her 20-something son and daughter.

"I love Mother's Day!" said McCooey, executive director of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fontana Boathouse.

Her first Mother's Day a couple of decades ago remains one of her favorites for the time she had with her own mother, Arlene Connolly, who now lives in Florida.

At the time, Connolly was living in Buffalo and the family had a tradition of cooking and cleaning to give her the day off.

As the men were getting ready to grill dinner, McCooey suddenly thought of how her mother had said she always wanted to see where Buffalo's long-ago, congressman-turned-president Millard Fillmore was buried.

So while the others worked, McCooey took her mother for a drive to Forest Lawn. As they studied Fillmore's unpretentious grave and plain-looking obelisk, they had an interesting conversation about growing old.

As they talked about which they would pick if they had a choice -- whether to keep mind or body strong, her mother said she valued her memory and connections with people the most.

McCooey was thinking of that wish when she discovered that the catalog company the Vermont Country Store carried the old-fashioned caramel and walnut "Walnettos."

She sent boxes of the treat at Christmas, and her mother, now 80, said they tasted familiar but she couldn't remember why. McCooey reminded her that when she was a girl and they lived in Kenmore, she used to buy the candy at the neighborhood store and bring it home to share.

Now that her mom has finished the candies, McCooey sent another Mother's Day supply to help keep the sweet old memories alive.

"I hope these things help her keep them as long as she can," she said.

The year Jeff Deming forgot to send something to his mother in Arizona led to one of his more inspired tributes. Since she has a habit of going horseback riding on Sundays at a nearby guest ranch, he called a friend who worked there and asked him to pick out a card and some flowers and make a delivery with his fellow cowboys.

Her friends out on the ride watched and then teased her. She loved it.

"She called me as soon as she got back," said Deming, general manager of the Giacomo Hotel in Niagara Falls. It did cost a little extra to thank his ranch friends. "I had to buy them a round of drinks at the bar that next week," he said. "Sometimes the best ideas come at the last minute."

That is how Chris Barnas came up with the photo-filled iPod for his wife, Nicole. It was a last-minute inspiration.

He started by buying an iPod he knew she wanted. The night before Mother's Day, he opened the package and tried to be secretive, as Nicole kept stopping in to ask what he was up to.

She didn't know how to use Apple products, so he wanted to load it with music so it would work when she opened the present.

As he worked, he decided it would be nice to add some sentimental pictures.

"I didn't really think that much about it," he said.

He's been surprised by how much that iPod has meant. Now when he has time, he'll add new pictures and music, like the soundtrack she liked from a snowboarding movie they watched together.

"When you're not trying -- that's sometimes the best present that comes along," he said. "I wasn't trying to hit a home run, but apparently it worked out well. I wish they all worked out that way."

email: mkearns@buffnews.com